The start of a career in the teen rehabilitation industry
Lester Leo Roloff was an American fundamental Independent Baptist preacher. Roloff began preaching at small country churches in southern Texas, before taking on pastoral duties at churches in Houston and later Corpus Christi. It was in Corpus Christi in 1944, that Roloff began his radio show, The Family Altar. Roloff in April 1951 resigned as pastor at Second Baptist Church to enter full-time evangelism. He founded the Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises, a non-profit religious organization. In August of 1954, with convictions about being independent of the Southern Baptist Convention or any other denominational influence, he founded a church in Corpus Christi which was to be called the Alameda Baptist Church. Roloff gave speeches at Baylor University and over his own radio show. Separate from mainline Southern Baptists, Roloff began actively ministering to alcoholic and homeless men.
His first mission house was established in Corpus Christi in 1954. Roloff Homes was established for troubled youth and were privately run faith based residential facilities in Texas. Additional children's homes were eventually added throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Georgia. The first Roloff home for females, The Rebekah Home for Girls, was established in 1968. It was touted as a place where girls in trouble could get worship as they got straightened out. This school specialized in taking cases other agencies and homes refused to take.
Complaints of child abuse surface
The Texas Attorney General's office began investigating reports of violent beatings, starvation, and torture at the Roloff Homes in 1971. April, 1973, when the state Welfare Department filed a suit in an attempt to have the Rebekah Home licensed. State and Local child protective authorities first investigated possible abuse at the Rebekah Home in 1973, when parents who were visiting their daughter reported seeing a girl being whipped. Rebekah girls who said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells-sometimes for such minor infractions as failing to memorize a Bible passage or forgetting to make a bed. When girls who had not yet "been saved" tried to run away they were thrown in the lockup which was a dorm room devoid of furniture or natural light where girls spent days, or weeks, alone. In spite of repeated warnings by state child welfare agencies, there were continuing accounts of beatings, forced restraints and use of isolation on the teens which lead to the Texas Attorney General recommending the facilities be regulated and licensed or be closed. (see the case of Deanne Dawsey http://www.nospank.net/colloff.htm)
This led to a confrontation between Roloff Homes and the Texas AG over legal issue of the separation of church and state. If licensed, the home would have been required to hire a home supervisor who holds a degree in social work and who is approved by the Welfare Department. That supervisor would be required to complete an additional fifteen hours of college level social studies every two years. Roloff Holmes would be required to file financial reports regularly with the Texas Welfare Department. The home would also have to hire one state-approved worker for every eight girls.
On August 3, 1973, an injunction was signed, in which Roloff was enjoined from operating a child care institution without a license for those under sixteen years of age. On October 5, 1973, a district judge heard the case and fined Roloff $500 and $80 in court costs for contempt of court when he refused welfare guidelines. With Roloff still refusing to have the home licensed, the Welfare Department leveled charges against the home, based upon the testimony the girls. At that time 1,500 girls had spent time at Rebekah Home. Some of the homes were temporarily closed in 1973, but re-opened the following year after Roloff successfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Evading prosecution through shuffling ownership
Roloff at one point transferred ownership of the homes from Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises to his church, the People's Baptist Church, forcing the state to sue the "new" owners, and keeping the homes running. Then on January 31, 1974, the case went to court again in Corpus Christi and Roloff was found guilty--fined $5,400 and sentenced to five days in the county jail on contempt of court charges. The court also ordered him to remove all the girls from the home.
Questioning the constitutionality of state licensing
On February 4th he was given the opportunity to present his argument on the constitutionality of state licensing of a church-operated home before the Provisions Committee of the Texas State Senate. The high court finally ruled that children sixteen or over could be cared for by Roloff and as a result overturned the contempt of court charges May 20, 1974. The Attorney General refilled the case, forcing an injunction that tried to shut the ministry down. In 1975, the State of Texas passed laws that required licensing of youth homes. Roloff was arrested twice for refusing to comply with this law. March, 1975, the Texas Welfare Department had filed against Roloff again for contempt and for being in violation of their rules and regulations. By January 1, 1976, the new guidelines by the Welfare Department became law, making it illegal for unlicensed homes to take in children under the age of eighteen.
Political power from the pulpit brought to bear on state regulators
But Roloff had vocal support from his followers which included many evangelical preachers. In his very successful radio show, the late evangelist, Lester Roloff, praised the use of punitive "Bible discipline" as a method to chasten girls who had fallen from grace. As a result the faithful showered Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises with checks, jewelry and other valuables and he made millions. Texas State welfare workers received reports of physical abuse and Attorney General John Hill finally filed a suit against Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises.
In 1979 an incident occurred in this church vs state battle, which became known as the "Christian Alamo." Lester Roloff urged churches and pastors across America who supported the Roloff ministry to come to Corpus Christi and form a human chain around the church to prevent the Department of Human Resources from removing children from the homes. This human barricade of fundamental evangelical supporters prevented the girls from being removed by Texas State officials for 3 days. The Rebekah girls were essentially prisoners in this political show down between Roloff and the Texas Attorney General. Lester Roloff was expressing his political power and the hidden support network of thousands of fundamentalists who adhered to similar beliefs and listened to his radio show. So the Roloff Homes was the center a twelve-year battle between church and state which ended in the Christian Alamo standoff. (For a more personal account of Roloff Homes see http://www.nospank.net/colloff.htm )
Still vowing to legally fight for separation of church and state and to prevent governmental interference in the way Roloff Homes disciplined children, Roloff Homes in 1979 placed themselves legally under the auspices of the People's Baptist Church. This forced the Kansas Attorney General to then sue a new legal entity and Roloff Homes again refused to apply for a Texas state license or to comply with state regulations regarding protection of children from abuse.
Legal battles with the State of Texas continued and the homes were closed and re-opened. The Texas homes were finally closed again in 2001 after Lester Roloff's death but the legal battle that had kept them open for so long had significantly changed the political landscape for all faith based organizations.
The political message was clear – there was a huge following of fervent religious people not just in Texas but throughout the USA. These were American citizens who had previously not engaged in the political arena, many of whom had never even registered to vote and who in large part lived their lives apart from the rest of the general society. They claimed the right to religious freedom and do what they wished within their religious facilities. They claimed Lester Roloff as one of their own and he then embodied their right to separation of church and state. The Texas Attorney General and the social services agencies who wished to shut the facility down were representing the right of the state of Texas to assure that human rights abuses and child abuse did not happen to any minor child regardless of the religious beliefs of the parents.
In 1985 the state prevailed and forced the Rebekah Home to close. But the political message was heard by Texas Governor George W. Bush. Texas Governor George W. Bush in an effort to garner support from the fundamentalist churches and to secure their votes in the upcoming election supported legislation that would allow church-run child-care institutions to opt out of state licensing. This allowed George W. Bush to tap into the support of the huge numbers of fundamentalist evangelical unregistered voters and get them to vote in the upcoming election.
Death of Lester Roloff but rebirth of Roloff Homes in Missouri
On the morning of November 2, 1982, Lester Roloff boarded his Cessna 210 on his way to a preaching engagement at the Calvary Baptist Church of Kansas City, Missouri and his plane crashed.
After Lester’s death, Wiley Cameron Sr., assumed control of the Roloff Holmes. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roloff Homes must accept state licensing and regulation. But Roloff Homes had political support and had become a symbolic cause for the Religious Right. On the eve of the court ordered shut down of Roloff Homes in Texas, Cameron Wiley and other church members, took about 100 teens in a convoy of buses to the state of Missouri where there were no requirements for state licensure and inspection. Roloff Homes moved to Missouri and ran facilities there for 14 years in exile rather than accept state oversight in Texas.
While in exile in the state of Missouri, Wiley Cameron ran the Rebekah Home and Anchor Home in this new state. But Wiley Cameron continued to lobby the Governor of Texas George W. Bush to permit alternative accreditation to religious child care facilities. In 1984 the Supreme Court of Texas sided with the state, holding that the licensing of church-run child-care facilities violated no First Amendment religious freedoms thus required Roloff Homes to submit to licensing regulations and inspection.
In 1987 investigative reporters for the The Kansas City Times ran an article on physical abuse at the homes. Two days after the article ran, Cameron Wiley shut them down and returned to Texas because by then he had politically maneuvered to be able to escape state licensing and inspection there.
Alternative accreditation of faith-based facilities
Meanwhile, Wiley Cameron strategically and politically lobbied for the alternative accreditation law. He got his wish with 75th Texas Legislature’s House Bill 2482 which allows child care facilities that meet or exceed state standards to be accredited by private sector entities instead of being licensed and regulated by the state. These child care providers will still be subject to the appropriate background checks. Florida-based attorneys for the Roloff Homes are the only witnesses to testify in favor of this legislation.
In 1997, the Texas Legislature passed two bills, House Bill 2482 (75R) and House Bill 2481 (75R), that set the stage for deregulation of faith-based facilities in Texas. There was the establishment through law of an Alternative Accreditation system that allowed faith-based residential facilities and child care facilities to be accredited by a faith-based entity in lieu of being licensed and regulated by the state. In addition legislation was passed that permitted faith-based chemical dependency programs to be exempted from state licensing and regulation. The Texas legislature also set a governmental system to implement and promote the provision of governmental funds to faith-based organizations. The Texas Department of Human Services and the Texas Workforce Commission were to reach out with liaisons to create partnerships with faith-based organizations.
Effects of loss of regulatory control over residential faith-based facilities
So in Texas the new permissive regulatory climate allowed faith-based drug treatment centers must simply register their religious status with the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) to be exempt from virtually all health, safety and quality of care regulations required of state-licensed treatment facilities. Thus these facilities were exempted from all medical treatment guidelines, employee training and licensing requirements, abuse and neglect prevention training, client rights protections, and requirements for reporting abuse, neglect, emergencies and medication errors.
The only such non-governmental entity approved by Texas to be an Alternative Accreditation Agency was the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (TACCCA). But this new accreditation process in which private accreditation agencies, rather than the state, were to oversee faith-based homes had only one registrant the TACCCA. This one and only agency to register with the state was the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (TACCCA). The TACCCA had a six-person board of directors which included Wiley Cameron. The agency was created after the passage of the bill and was headed by Pastor David Blaser, a longtime admirer of Lester Roloff's. When the TACCCA agency applied for state approval, state accreditation officials hesitated, citing the new law's requirement that only "recognized" accrediting agencies be approved. But then Don Willett of Governor George W. Bush’s office, claimed that the law was not intended to rule out new agencies, and the state relented after determining that all six board members had experience running child-care facilities. Three pastors who ran facilities were on the board of the TACCCA and thus actually inspected and regulated themselves. These were the Roloff Children’s Home, Channelview Christian Daycare and Miller Road Baptist Daycare. TACCCA accredited a total of only eight facilities in the four years the Alternative Accreditation program was in place. In theory, TACCCA was required to enforce the same standards, and conduct the same inspections, at facilities it regulated as were enforced at state-licensed facilities but it did not do so.
Concerns regarding this alternative licensing were voiced by the Texas Freedom Network report: The Texas Faith-Based Initiative at Five Years: Warning Signs as President Bush Expands Texas-style Program at National Level:
• TACCCA was cited by the state for failing to conduct any unannounced inspections of its facilities, as were required by state law and TACCCA.s state contract to be conducted annually at each facility.
• The rate of confirmed abuse and neglect at alternatively-accredited facilities was 25 times higher than that of state-licensed facilities. Alternatively-accredited facilities had a 25% rate of confirmed abuse and neglect, compared to a rate of less than 1% at state-licensed facilities.
• The complaint rate at alternatively-accredited facilities was 75%, compared to a 5.4% complaint rate at state-licensed facilities.
• The state could not conduct site visits or address complaints at alternatively-accredited facilities unless TACCCA filed formal allegations of abuse against a facility it accredits.
• Alternative Accreditation buffered faith-based organizations from state oversight, but left the children in their care vulnerable.
The Texas Freedom Network reports that “TCADA has no authority to investigate complaints, remedy unsafe conditions or ensure quality treatment practices at faith-based treatment centers that are exempt from state regulations. As such, clients of exempt treatment centers have no recourse through the state if they have a grievance with a facility they attended.”
Abuse at Roloff Homes continues
Wiley Cameron was appointed to serve on the board of directors of Texas Association of Child Care Agencies (TACCCA). Roloff Homes moved back to Texas and was able to open 5 facilities accredited by the TACCCA. The Roloff Homes were the first of eight faith-based child-care facilities accredited by TACCCA. Despite continued complaints of abuse and neglect, TACCCA re-accredited the Roloff Homes in April 2000. By 2000, reports of physical abuse, beatings and sadistic punishments resurfaced. In July 2001 a staffer at Roloff Holmes facility run by the People’s Baptist Church was found guilty of two counts of unlawful restraint, stemming from an incident in which he tied two residents together at the wrist and forced them into a 15-foot-deep pit. Two residents at the facility, officially called the Lighthouse but also known as the Roloff Homes, claimed that staff used extreme discipline, including beatings and forced exercise. The two young men who brought the case, Aaron Cavallin and Justin Simons, claimed that they were tied together, made to run through brush and forced into the pit after they were caught trying to flee the facility. Testifying in court, the staff member said the two clients expressed regret after they were caught running away and that he wanted to test their sincerity by putting them into the pit. A structural engineer who testified during the trial said the pit, which had been dug the day before as a drainage ditch, was not safe and could have collapsed.
Weakened control of faith-based social services
State regulation of "faith-based" social services was dramatically weakened in Texas in 1997 when then-Gov. George W. Bush pushed through a new state policy. Roloff Homes' resistance to state inspection was one reason for the change. Under the Bush plan, "faith-based" homes for juveniles were given the option of being overseen by independent religious associations instead of the government. The idea was that the religious homes would keep tabs on one another through periodic inspections, but critics charged that the plan would foster lax oversight of the institutions. Ironically, few religious groups saw the need for the alternative system. Over the same period, more than 2,000 child-care facilities chose to continue operating under a state license and 900 chemical dependency programs, faith-based and non faith-based alike, were still maintaining their state licensing and continue to remain content to be under state oversight. Only eight homes, Roloff among them, signed up for the alternative policy. Roloff Homes’ administrators were criminally convicted in 2001.
The Right Step Program is registered with the TCADA Commission as a faith-based chemical dependency treatment program, which is exempt from facility licensure and doing business as Williamson Baptist Association. It still continues to operate legally in Texas without licensed counselors, adherence to state health and safety standards, or accountability for client rights.
The establishment of a two tier system of accreditation for faith-based programs has proven to be dangerous to vulnerable children and chemically-dependent people. The elimination of basic health and safety standards has endangered these populations. Parents and clients are often unaware that the facility is unlicensed by the state and does not have to meet state health and safety standards. Medical care is often not provided to those clients who need it. There is no accountability or transparency to prevent the co-mingling of taxpayer funds with faith based funds meant for exclusively religious activities. The blurring of the line between church and state leads to potential first amendment rights violations.